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Vanwall's inconspicuous entry to the GP world



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Mike Hawthorn




Monte Carlo


1955 Monaco GP


The second of three stages of Vanwall success, from "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" (the Thinwall Special story) to "Brittannia rule the waves!" (the 1957 British GP story).

"We did not realise it at the time, but looking back one can see that this was a really historic motor race, which will long be remembered. Not only was it exciting because of the dramatic changes of fortune which marked its course; it also brought together a glittering collection of first-class cars and a company of great drivers which we were never again to see assembled together." - Mike Hawthorn, Challenge Me the Race, p.141, William Kimber, London, April 1958.

Before Christmas 1954 Mike Hawthorn had made up his mind to join Vanwall for the coming year. He liked Tony Vandervell enormously and had been very impressed with the Vanwall Special in his two end-of-season drives, at Goodwood for the 10-lap Formula Libre event and at Aintree for the Daily Telegraph Trophy, finishing second both times to Moss. Not only did it seem to have real potential as a Grand Prix car but Vandervell was also prepared to pay Hawthorn a retainer of £3000 for the season, no small sum in 1955. On top of that, Hawthorn would get 50% of all starting money, prize money and bonuses. Being able to bank a fat cheque right away had considerable appeal, after his "payment by results" deal with Ferrari, and he had no hesitation in accepting Vandervell's offer. On January 5, 1955, Tony Vandervell announced that Mike Hawthorn had signed to drive for his team throughout the coming season.

Early in April Hawthorn returned to Odiham airfield (scene of his very first tests with the Cooper-Bristol) to give the new Vanwall a shakedown in private. The car was virtually identical to the 1954 machine with a tubular chassis built by Cooper Cars, independent front suspension and de Dion rear (both unashamedly "borrowed" from Ferrari) and Goodyear disc brakes. The four-cylinder, 2.5-litre engine might be described basically as four Norton water-cooled twin ohc motorcycle engines in unity, having begun life as a 2-litre, then being enlarged to 2.3 litres and finally, at the end of 1954, to the full 2.5 litres. Four Amal carburettors were used at first, but a Bosch fuel-injection system was employed for 1955. The system proved far from satisfactory at Odiham, and so the team's entry for Goodwood was scratched.

More testing at Silverstone saw some improvement and two Vanwalls (the word Special had now been dropped) were entered for the International Trophy race. Determined that his team should be seen to be doing things in the right manner, Tony Vandervell had taken on David Yorke as team manager and signed Ken Wharton to back up Hawthorn. Despite the team's air of professionalism, the race was a disaster. In practice Hawthorn set equal fastest time with Roy Salvadori (Maserati), but after only a few laps of the race an oil leak developed in the gearbox and he had to retire. Far worse was to happen to poor Ken Wharton, however. After a stop to repair the Vanwall's throttle linkage, he was having a great battle with Salvadori, when he hit one of Silverstone's famous marker barrels and crashed heavily in a mass of flames. Wharton was very lucky to survive with not-too-serious burns, but the car was a complete write-off.

With one driver in hospital, the other noticeably unhappy and one car virtually destroyed, the Vanwall team had just one week to prepare itself for the most prestigious Grand Prix of the year - Monaco. Hawthorn's disappointment with Vanwall continued almost immediately. He returned to Silverstone to test his car before it was sent to Monaco and a con-rod went through the side of the engine. The only other Vanwall power unit in existence was in the burnt-out wreck of Wharton's car and this was quickly removed, rebuilt and installed in Mike's chassis. "This was a hard blow", writes Hawthorn, "for it meant that the engine had to be taken out of the incinerated wreckage of Ken's car and rebuilt to go in mine and the car had to be despatched to Monaco with no spare engine…"

Monaco was Hawthorn's first chance to meet up with his old Ferrari team mates since he had left the Scuderia. He found them none too happy, as the team was in some disarray, with two new 555 Supersqualos (for Schell and Taruffi) and two old 625 models (for Farina and Trintignant), none of which appeared to have a dog's chance of winning the race. Hawthorn was faster than three of them in practice, only Maurice Trintignant's 625 lapping faster than the Vanwall, although this was small consolation, as he was 12th fastest on the grid, over four seconds slower than Fangio (Mercedes-Benz) and Ascari (Lancia) who had set equal fastest time. After their defeat by Hawthorn's Ferrari in the final race of 1954, both Mercedes-Benz and Lancia were determined to make amends.

Sadly, the Lancia concern was in deep financial trouble, although no-one would have guessed it from their turn-out at Monaco, which comprised no fewer than five of their wonderful D50s! Four were entered for the race, to be driven by Ascari, Villoresi, the young Italian rising star Eugenio Castellotti and the veteran Louis Chiron, whose last Grand Prix this was to be.

Mercedes-Benz brought four cars and entered three, for Fangio, Moss and Herrmann. The power of the straight-eight had been increased from 260bhp to 290 and two short-chassis models had been built especially for the tight Monaco circuit. The reduction in length meant that the front brakes had to be moved outboard, onto the wheels. Hans Herrmann was unlucky enough to crash heavily in practice, breaking his hip, which meant that Daimler-Benz were down to two drivers, but not for long. The following morning the French driver, André Simon, was shaving in his room at the Hotel Mirabeau when the phone rang. It was Alfred Neubauer, who said, simply, "You will drive the practice Mercedes in place of Herrmann", which is how a journeyman racing driver found himself rubbing shoulders with Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss in the most illustrious Grand Prix team in the world.

If that sounds like a scene from a Hollywood movie, it is not entirely inappropriate, for the night before the race 20th Century-Fox held a gala premiere of their new film, The Racers, vaguely based on a book by pre-war racing driver Hans Rüesch. Briefly, the film concerns a handsome but impoverished ace (Kirk Douglas) who crashes in practice for the Monaco GP when trying to avoid a dog that has run onto the track. The said animal belongs to a beautiful ballet dancer (Bella Darvi) who, to make compensation, wins lots of money at the Casino, buys the handsome racing driver a new Ferrari with which he promptly wins the Mille Miglia. They fall in love, then argue and... well, you probably get the picture. All the real racing drivers were invited to see this film and the general opinion seems to have been that while the racing scenes were excellent (they had been filmed the year before in many Grands Prix and sports car races, using on-car cameras), the plot was about as likely as a Ferrari victory the following day...

As if to prove that occasionally life does imitate art (or at least, Hollywood's idea of art) a Ferrari victory was precisely the outcome of the 1955 Monaco Grand Prix, the first Grand Prix proper to be held in the Principality since 1950. It seemed pretty clear before that the race would be won either by a Mercedes or a Lancia, for although Ferrari and Maserati entered four cars apiece and Gordini three, no-one took their chances seriously. For the first half of the race it looked like a Mercedes walkover, with Fangio leading Moss, comfortably ahead of the opposition, but then the Mercedes plans began to come off the rails when Fangio's car ground to a halt at the Station on the fiftieth lap. No matter - Moss was now firmly in the lead and looked set for a remarkable double, having scored a historic victory in the Mille Miglia three weeks earlier. His first Mercedes GP victory was now within his grasp and he would surely lap Ascari's second-placed Lancia before the race was over.

But no - the real drama of this extraordinary Grand Prix was just beginning, for suddenly the Mercedes was pouring smoke and a black-faced Moss was forced to stop at his pit. Alberto Ascari now had only to complete the lap to take the lead, but as he went into the chicane he made a slight error and the Lancia clipped a curb before bouncing across the road, striking a bollard and plunging into the harbour. Happily, the former World Champion was pulled from the water suffering nothing worse than a bloody nose, just as an unhappy Stirling Moss was forced to retire. Amidst all this drama, local hero Maurice Trintignant drove his ageing Ferrari into the lead, reeled off the remaining twenty laps in faultless style and won the race. Hollywood couldn't have done it better.

One person who had no part in all this excitement was Mike Hawthorn. He was half-way down the field when, on the 23rd lap, the Vanwall's engine stopped, leaving him stranded in Casino Square. He resisted the temptation to see if he could improve his luck at the tables and instead had a look under the engine cover and found that the throttle linkage had come adrift. He managed to get back to the pits, where the car was withdrawn and all he could do was watch his old team win the Grand Prix.

Reader's Why by Don Capps

  1. First appearance of the revised Vanwall cars in a World Championship event. Although still based on the Cooper designed and built chassis of the 1954 design, this was the first of the four chassis assembled for the 1955 season. Whereas the 1954 chassis was not only designed by Cooper - Owen Maddock - and built by them, it carried a Cooper type number as well, being on the list as the "Type 30." True, this was applied retrospectively, but the reality was that the Vanwall Special was out-sourced to the Cooper family.
  2. At Barcelona during the first practice for the 1954 Spanish Grand Prix, Peter Collins comprehensively bashed the chassis when he overdid it on a corner and collected a tree. Collins escaped without injury, but the same could not be said for the car or the tree. When it became obvious that the car could not be repaired and readied for the race, the team packed its gear and departed the paddock. The winner of the race was Mike Hawthorn. That very same driver will play a role in what follows.
  3. After returning to its base at Acton, the car was stripped down and found to be beyond repair. The frame was severely bent and would have to be scrapped. In addition, the de Dion tube assembly was ruined by the impact with the tree - Collins hit it tail-first. Three of the alloy rim Borrani wire wheels were destroyed as well. The bodywork, naturally, was a mess and merely scrap. One of the side-mounted fuel tanks was destroyed as was the rear fuel tank, which took most of the impact. The rear suspension was merely junk. All in all, Collins well and truly wrote off the car. However, the Pearl Assurance Company had insured the car and presented a check for £1,473 8s 6d to the team for the damages after one of its inspectors looked the car over.
  4. Meanwhile, there were now enough parts available by November for the team to build up two chassis in its own shop. And there would be soon spares enough that could assemble a third chassis if necessary. Tony Vandervell, "The Guv," and one of his technical directors visited Count Orsi in Modena and discussed terms for the purchase of some machine tools for the Vandervell racing operation. It has to be kept in mind that at this time that outside of the United States, the place for purchasing machine tools was Italy, with Maserati being among those in the first rank. After some discussion, the Guv managed to get Count Orsi to part company with two milling machines, a vertical milling machine, and a universal milling machine for a mere £10,000. In addition, Vandervell also purchased a rolling chassis from Maserati so his racing staff could examine a state-of-the-art Italian racing machine and transfer information to the Vandervell machines. The chassis, chassis 2513, was to be delivered without an engine or any bodywork. All Vandervell was interested in was the suspension and chassis components. There was no need for an engine or bodywork since there was never any intent to race the machine in competition. Besides, the Vandervell team was very familiar with the engine in the 250F having assisted Maserati with the bottom end design, especially the bearings. Vandervell picked up 2513 for a bargain-basement price of only £2,346.
  5. In late 1954, Vandervell was looking for a driver and there was a driver looking for a ride in his native land. The team intended to run two cars for the 1955 racing season and wanted to line up two drivers for the upcoming season, hopefully both British. Although there were some minor problems, it was assumed by all concerned that Peter Collins was one of them. The other was where the victor of the 1954 Spanish Grand Prix entered the picture.
  6. At the end of the 1954 season, Scuderia Ferrari was in disarray despite two victories that season. However, they were acknowledged to be lucky wins, even within the team. The usual chaos and confusion at Scuderia Ferrari was even worse than ever, if that was possible. There was a near complete lack of focus in the team and the strain was huge on all concerned. At this juncture, Hawthorn began to weigh the advantages of being in England and driving for a British team as opposed to remaining on the Continent and driving for Ferrari. Having a pint at the local pub and tending to the family business at the Tourist Trophy Garage in Farnham was looking better and better, especially in light of his father's recent death and the fact that his mother was running things on a daily basis. Hawthorn and Vandervell started negotiations in late 1954 and soon were in agreement on the terms. Vandervell, ever the one to have an eye on the money that the Inland Revenue would appropriate as its share, suggested to Hawthorn that he incorporate to avoid the surcharge that would be siphoned off to the Revenue people if he engaged in the contract as an individual. Hence, the contract was with the "TT Garage Ltd., of East Street, Farnham, Surrey," the "company" for the services of "John Michael Hawthorn, the driver."
  7. The contract was for the services of Hawthorn from 1 April 1955 to 31 October 1955, with a provision for his services beyond the latter date if there were any races from 1 November onward that Vandervell wished to enter. This was done since the sporting calendar did seem to be in pencil at times with events being added and dropped almost at whim. There were roughly eight races planned during this period. The retainer was for £3,000 plus Hawthorn was to receive 50% of all starting and prize monies as well as 50% of any bonus money from suppliers. The contract was announced and signed on 5 January 1955. Hawthorn was now a driver on the Vandervell team.
  8. Meanwhile, getting Peter Collins under contract was another story. As it would turn out, the team would not get Collins under contract for the season. After a litany of excuses and problems, it was apparent that Collins would not be a driver for Vandervell in 1955 when it was revealed from the Esso representative, Reg Tanner, that Collins had signed a contract with Esso for the 1955 season. Since Vandervell had signed on with Shell Mex and BP for the use of their products, that was the end of that. The entire scene played out for many months past when it should have been resolved, but Vandervell merely shrugged it off such being the charisma of said Collins as both a driver and an individual. It was also revealed later that Collins was under contract to Castrol for 1955 as well!
  9. While all this was going on, the team was working on converting the engine to fuel injection. This was facilitated once the pumps ordered from Bosch finally arrived in early 1955. In addition, the team now had a manager. With the team now poised to begin playing in the major leagues, it was necessary to get things organized and operating in a matter to ensure success. The team manager for Peter Whitehead was given the opportunity to accept the position and did so with the full support of Whitehead. With David Yorke on board, the elements for success were starting to fall into place.
  10. The problems of getting the fuel injection system running meant the team had to pass on the Pau, Napoli, and the Easter Goodwood races. With the situation with Collins finally resolved, Ken Wharton was signed to be the number two driver to Mike Hawthorn. The first race for the 1955 season was the International Trophy at Silverstone on 7 May. The cars were eagerly awaited by the organizers as well as the public. They were roll out of the paddock into the pits looking very smart in their green livery. Given race numbers 1 and 2, many also noticed a small, but significant change on the bonnets of the cars: where the white lettering on the bonnet once spelled out "Vanwall Special," it now simply read "Vanwall." Both cars were plagued by problems throughout the meeting. It was not a good outing for the team and made worse by the fact that Ken Wharton crashed heavily when forced off his line by a back-marker. Wharton suffered injuries which put him on the sidelines for awhile and the Pearl Assurance Company had to fork over a check for £4,472 17s 4d to the Vandervell team. Needless to say, they were not amused since the total premiums from the team were nowhere near this amount. Worse yet was that Peter Collins won the race in the Owen Organisation Maserati 250F!
  11. Although discouraged, the team pressed on since it needed to get ready for Monaco. Hawthorn in particular was very unhappy and had dark frowns on his usually cheery face. The potential seemed to be there, but it was just an endless list of little things that seemed to go wrong. With Wharton injured and all the problems that the team was experiencing, it was decided to only enter one car for the race at Monte Carlo. With the season at full song, the team stepped into the middle of the major league battle being contested by Mercedes, Lancia, Maserati, and Ferrari. The team did well to qualify in the middle of the grid despite some setup problems. The engine seemed to run well and the fuel injection didn't seem to be too far off the mark, even if it became apparent the horsepower was further off the mark than they had anticipated. On the slow Monte Carlo circuit it was not as bad as it would be on some circuits, but the next few races after Monaco were best not thought about since it was now obvious the Vanwall was giving some serious horsepower. In the race, Hawthorn only completed 23 laps due to a ball joint on the fuel injection pump shattered. This put Hawthorn on the sidelines and allowed him to watch Maurice Trintignant win the race when the Mercedes and Lancia teams dropped out. That he could have been at the wheel of the Ferrari and taking the checkered flag surely crossed his mind since he was in very dark mood after the race. The cause of the failure was never determined and one never failed in a similar fashion again. Even the Guv was in a darker mood than usual. He was never one to take defeat well in the first place, and this was not much to show for a great deal of effort. Although his displeasure was not pointed at any particular person, rather at things in general, this did not make life any easier for the team as it prepared for the next race on the schedule, the Belgian race at Spa-Francorchamps.
  12. Once again the team entered only a single car, VW1, for the race since Wharton was still on the sidelines due to his injuries from Silverstone. As was the norm in those days, the team would find space in a garage or auto agency somewhere in the area of the circuit in a village or town since there were really no facilities at the circuit for any extensive work on the cars. This meant the cars were usually driven by the mechanics from where the team was staying to the paddock or the pit area. This served to both give the mechanics an opportunity to check out the car and to give the race some free publicity. For the first practice session, Vandervell decided to drive the car to the circuit. It being his money and his car, no one objected - or at least within his earshot. The Guv eased himself into the cockpit and the mechanics push-started the car. After a lap around the square, Vandervell headed for the pit area. Normally, these jaunts were uneventful and rarely saw any problems occur. Besides the cars usually could get there quickly since few interfered with them on their way to the circuit. Needless to say this was not to be. With a group of mechanics in the Vandervell Bentley following him, the Guv was batting down the road and despite some initial problems with the uphill sections, doing okay. Then he started to get mixed up with the spectator traffic. As he neared the pits the traffic got worse. Vandervell was subjecting the clutch to more and more abuse as he slipped the clutch more and more since he was on an uphill section. By the time he reached the pits, the clutch was in pretty poor shape. Vandervell hopped out and walked off. The mechanics immediately set to work and hoped for the best. Hawthorn set off to lap the circuit and he barely cleared the pits when the clutch completely packed up. It must be said that Hawthorn was notorious for abusing clutches, but for once he was not at fault. Hawthorn was furious. He stormed back to the pits on foot and left the circuit. That evening, as he stayed with friends in Spa, he was expressing his displeasure with the way the team was performing.
  13. In the race, he was forced to retire when the gearbox began to leak oil and then packed up. Later that evening when drinking at the Pierre le Grand restaurant, Hawthorn was drinking with friends when David Yorke came over and tried to make conversation. Hawthorn erupted, yelled at Yorke exactly what and where Vandervell could do with the car and his team, and then stormed out, jumped into his Jaguar and sped off into the night at a very rapid rate of speed.
  14. It was now clearly obvious to even the untrained eye that Hawthorn and the Vanwall team had parted ways. Vandervell considered the rift permanent and made no further efforts to entice Hawthorn to return as had been after Monaco and Silverstone. Vandervell also figured that with the retainer covering eight races, Hawthorn owed him back five races worth or £1,875 at £375 per race, with the haggling over the starting monies to be deferred until later. Messages were sent to the TT Garage and to Hawthorn via the Jaguar team since the next race on the Hawthorn calendar was Le Mans. Mrs. Hawthorn was very distressed to open the letter and see it contents. Knowing nothing of what had transpired, she was naturally distraught and called Vandervell for explanation. Hawthorn in the meanwhile received the message while at Le Mans and quickly cabled back his acceptance of the terms. On the Monday after Le Mans, Hawthorn sent a check for £1,875 to Vandervell to settle the account of the retainer.